This used to be Gamaliel Laboy Andino’s school. But he doesn’t go here anymore. No one does -- not since the government closed it more than a year ago. It saddened him, he said, because there are students who now have to go to school far away.
“It makes me sad, because there are students who don’t have anywhere to go,” he said.
We visited the Federico Mathew Baez school in July. It was hot and kids were tossing water balloons and spraying hoses to keep cool. On this day, they were having fun. But the whole thing still made Miabela Beatriz Rodriguez Velez sad, too. This wasn’t her school, she said. But that’s not the point.
“I feel bad for the students who came here because there are a lot of people who, even though they live close by, they have to go far away to get their child or their brother or families members to school,” she said. “And I feel bad for them because they don't have cars or resources to pay for school.”
Even before Hurricane Maria blew through Puerto Rico a year ago, the island’s government had begun closing and consolidating some of its schools -- part of a controversial effort to save money as enrollment declined. Before this year started, it closed more than 250 schools as a way to save money. That leaves empty buildings behind.
Here, in the town of Yabucoa, this school -- closed for its second year -- is at the center of this small neighborhood. This past summer, it was used for a camp program. But, without activities like this, parents like Yesenia Rivera fear that an empty building could be used for worse things.
“If they don’t use this for something positive, they’ll vandalize it,” she said. “People coming from outside can hide here, for vice...and drugs.”
Rivera is a 29-year-old parent of three. This is her neighborhood, and this was her neighborhood school. She said this building was the one place in town where people could really get together.
So she welcomes the work of people like Ruth Laboy, the community leader here. In an interview in an empty classroom, Laboy said this isn’t the government’s school to close. It’s always belonged to the community. And, even if the school is shuttered, the building doesn’t have to be. The people need it, she said.
“Our goal for the school is to stand up a community center for activities, to make a technology center…, a recycling center, a community kitchen for the elderly,” she said. “That’s one of our goals. We have to keep working, bit by bit.”
To make it happen, she started a nonprofit and got a one-year contract from her municipality to get inside the building and make it useful again. She’s in the early planning stages. And, for her, it’s personal.
“We want to conserve it because we’re from here, we studied here, I studied here, my daughters studied here,” she said. “For me, it brings me pride to work not for myself but for the children and the young people and for future generations.”
She’s being helped in the effort by the Connecticut-based nonprofit Save the Children. Benjamin Sosa works on the island with the agency. He said Laboy’s plan has a lot of promise.
“Libraries, a space to do activities, like weddings, a space to do workshops. Different kinds of workshops,” he said. “So it’s better to have a place like this that serves to the community in different ways.”
Because, when it comes to a closed school at the center of a town, some activity is better than none at all.